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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Whose spokesman was Senator Sumner of Massachusetts


was Lincoln's policy of reconstruction. He was anxious to get as much as possible of that policy in working order before Congress should meet. His foresight was justified, for as soon as Congress met the policy was challenged by the Radical wing of the Republican Party, whose spokesman was Senator Sumner of Massachusetts.

Charles Sumner has already been mentioned in these pages. The time has come when something like a portrait of him must be attempted. He was of a type which exists in all countries, but for which America has found the exact and irreplaceable name. He was a "high-brow." The phrase hardly needs explanation; it corresponds somewhat to what the French mean by _intellectuel_, but with an additional touch of moral priggishness which exactly suits Sumner. It does not, of course, imply that a man can think. Sumner was conspicuous even among politicians for his ineptitude in this respect. But it implies a pose of superiority both as regards culture and as regards what a man of that kind calls "idealism" which makes such an one peculiarly offensive to his fellow-men. "The Senator so conducts himself," said Fessenden, a Republican, and to a great extent an ally, "that he has no friends." He had a peculiar command of the language of insult and vituperation that was all the more infuriating because obviously the product not of sudden temper, but of careful and scholarly preparation. In all matters requiring practical action he was handicapped

by an incapacity for understanding men; in matters requiring mental lucidity by an incapacity for following a line of consecutive thought.

The thesis of which Sumner appeared as the champion was about as silly as ever a thesis could be. It was that the United States were bound by the doctrine set out in the Declaration of Independence to extend the Franchise indiscriminately to the Negroes.

Had Sumner had any sense it might have occurred to him that the author of the Declaration of Independence might be presumed to have some knowledge of its meaning and content. Did Thomas Jefferson think that his doctrines involved Negro Suffrage? So far from desiring that Negroes should vote with white men, he did not believe that they could even live in the same free community. Yet since Sumner's absurd fallacy has a certain historical importance through the influence it exerted on Northern opinion, it may be well to point out where it lay.

The Declaration of Independence lays down three general principles fundamental to Democracy. One is that all men are equal in respect of their natural rights. The second is that the safeguarding of men's natural rights is the object of government. The third that the basis of government is contractual--its "just powers" being derived from the consent of the governed to an implied contract.

The application of the first of these principles to the Negro is plain enough. Whatever else he was, the Negro was a man, and, as such, had an equal title with other men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But neither Jefferson nor any other sane thinker ever included the electoral suffrage among the _natural_ rights of men. Voting is part of the machinery of government in particular States. It is, in such communities, an acquired right depending according to the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence on an implied contract.

Now if such a contract did really underlie American, as all human society, nothing can be more certain than that the Negro had neither part nor lot in it. When Douglas pretended that the black race was not included in the expression "all men" he was talking sophistry, but when he said that the American Republic had been made "by white men for white men" he was stating, as Lincoln readily acknowledged, an indisputable historical fact. The Negro was a man and had the natural rights of a man; but he could have no claim to the special privileges of an American citizen because he was not and never had been an American citizen. He had not come to America as a citizen; no one would ever have dreamed of bringing him or even admitting him if it had been supposed that he was to be a citizen. He was brought and admitted as a slave. The fact that the servile relationship was condemned by the democratic creed could not make the actual relationship of the two races something wholly other than what it plainly was. A parallel might be found in the case of a man who, having entered into an intrigue with a woman, wholly animal and mercenary in its character, comes under the influence of a philosophy which condemns such a connection as sinful. He is bound to put an end to the connection. He is bound to act justly and humanely towards the woman. But no sane moralist would maintain that he was bound to marry the woman--that is, to treat the illicit relationship as if it were a wholly different lawful relationship such as it was never intended to be and never could have been.

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